Net neutrality needs a new player
The telecom and cable outfits have failed to get their message out in the battle over Network neutrality. Fortune has a candidate to get the job done.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) -- With all due respect to AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre, the telecommunications industry needs a new face to represent its views on Network neutrality.
Whitacre, the blunt, plainspoken leader of the nation's largest phone company, ruffled the technology community's feathers several months ago when he suggested that Internet content providers like Google (Charts) and Yahoo (Charts) should share in the cost of delivering bandwidth-intensive services on AT&T's (Charts) networks.
His comment that Internet companies shouldn't get a "free ride" on his system especially rankled the content community. It also prompted fresh cries for Net neutrality legislation, which would prohibit phone and cable companies from limiting or prioritizing Internet traffic on their networks, depending up how much bandwidth it uses.
"Ed was making the point that charging content users on his network would be legitimate since it is a private network built by AT&T shareholders," Wilderotter explains. "I believe the general nature of his statement was taken out of context by content players who just assumed he was going to discriminate [against them] for Web access. He and I spoke about this when I saw him in Washington, D.C. a few weeks later."
The phone industry clearly needs some help getting its message out. Type "net neutrality" into any search engine, and much of what you'll get is commentary about how the telcos and cable companies are trying to block innovation and make more money.
Typical of this is former Rocketboom anchor Amanda Congdon's rant against the telcos on her video blog, or this video making fun of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who, in trying to defend the telephone and cable companies, regrettably described the Internet as a "series of tubes."
It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the Internet content companies are winning the PR battle on their home turf in cyberspace, while the phone companies are faring pretty well in swaying opinion against Net neutrality an arena they know quite well: Washington.
Working both sides of the aisle
Here's why Wilderotter would make a good spokeswoman for her industry. She's the rare phone company CEO who also has worked at a tech company - Microsoft (Charts) to be specific - so she has some credibility on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. In fact, she says she placed a call to her former boss, Microsoft research and strategy chief Craig Mundie, after the whole Net neutrality issue started to come to a boil.
During their call, she says, "Craig told me he was working at Microsoft to come up with a set of guiding principals we could all sort of live by, a sort of Internet bill-of-rights," Wilderotter says. Internet content companies and telecom players "can figure out ways to work together," she adds.
Not surprisingly, Wilderotter believes the disputes that pit phone and cable companies against Internet companies should be worked out in conference rooms, not on Capitol Hill. She argues that no access provider would be dumb enough to prevent its users from getting to sites such as Google or Yahoo or MSN, or even to popular fledgling sites, like YouTube.
Such a move, she says, simply would drive consumers into the arms of competitors. (However, Net neutrality advocates rightly argue that there's not a whole lot of competition for broadband access; in most communities broadband is, at best, a duopoly).
"To tie our hands with regard to what we can do with these networks, when we're not going to do anything to preclude [anyone's] access [to them] is crazy," she says. "Legislation should be a last resort."
Despite her diplomatic tone, Wilderotter can also hit back when necessary - another quality the telcos require in a spokesperson. She is particularly critical of Google's efforts to promote Net neutrality at a time when the company is widely believed to be assembling its own Internet backbone, and is toying with different access strategies such as Wi-Fi.
"Someone needs to ask Google what its real intention is here," she says. "It is easy to put yourself in the content camp and tie the other guys up in a regulatory box while you secretly develop a whole access network to go after their customers."
Those sound like fighting words - and we suspect Wilderotter is up to the task.